Peter Faber: A Jesuit Saint Too Little Known
Peter Faber, like Francis Xavier, was born in 1506, and this year the Society of Jesus celebrates the 500th anniversary of their births, together with the 450th anniversary of the death of Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius, the guiding genius and first superior general of the Society, and Xavier, a world-spanning missionary, are well known. But it is Faber who may best have exemplified what a missionary to the church of the Reformation era needed: attention to personal experience, openness to God’s action in one’s own life, love of the church and gentleness in dealing with everyone, including those who thought and acted out of convictions different from his own. These traits may be equally of value to us today.
Faber came from a pastoral family of the Savoyard Alps; he was reserved, introspective, scrupulous and uncertain about his future.
Peter Faber arrived to study theology at the University of Paris in 1525 at the age of 19. He soon met fellow student Francis Xavier. Two more opposite temperaments would be hard to find. Xavier was a Spanish nobleman, gregarious, athletically inclined, self-confident, ambitious, impetuous, looking toward a well-endowed ecclesiastical career. Faber came from a pastoral family of the Savoyard Alps; he was reserved, introspective, scrupulous and uncertain about his future. But they became the closest friends. In his memoirs about his first years at the University of Paris, Faber writes, “May God grant me the grace to remember....such companions as I met....especially Master Francis Xavier.”
In September 1528, a 38-year-old former courtier and part-time soldier, Ignatius of Loyola, limped into Paris to attend the university in order to “help souls.” After a year at the traditionalist and physically grim Collège Montaigu, immortalized earlier by Erasmus, who described its “scurvy, fleas, hard-beds and harder blows, stale herring, rotten eggs and sour wine,” Ignatius transferred to the larger and more humanistically oriented Collège Ste. Barbe, where he was assigned as roommates Xavier, Faber and one of the teachers there. Faber soon began to coach Ignatius in his studies, and they also became close friends.
Soon, too, Faber so trusted Ignatius that he unburdened his temptations, his scruples, his uncertainties upon him. Ignatius understood them well; he had experienced similar trials during his conversion to the following of Christ. In his memoirs Faber gratefully recounts how Ignatius helped him: “He gave me an understanding of my conscience and of the temptations and scruples I had had for so long without either understanding them or seeing the way by which I would be able to get peace....The temptations that I had experienced at the time were evil and foul carnal images suggested by the spirit of fornication....” None of these trials ever left Faber completely, but thenceforth he could deal with them and out of his experience successfully help others. In August 1534, Faber, Ignatius, Xavier and four other Paris students bound themselves to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land if possible. If they could not, they would offer themselves to the pope, to be “missioned” by him for the service of the universal church.
War between Venice and the Turks prevented the trip, so in 1538 they and three new recruits, all 10 co-founders of the Society of Jesus, placed themselves at the service of Pope Paul III. Almost immediately the companions were dispatched to a variety of ministries. Faber was sent to Parma in May 1539. From that moment on, until his death seven years later in August 1546, popes, emperors, cardinals, nuncios or his Jesuit superior, Ignatius, would determine Faber’s path, turning his life into an extended journey of pastoral activity and charitable enterprises.
Over his lifetime Peter Faber had traveled, mostly by foot, more than 7,000 miles “as the crow flies."
A litany of cities and friendships
Over the course of Faber’s life, his correspondents ranged from Ignatius to the King of Portugal, from Peter Canisius to Guillaume Postel, a famous French humanist, from young Jesuit recruits to a dear friend who was the prior of the Carthusians in Cologne.
His apostolic life took him to a litany of cities. It began in Germany in 1540 at Worms, a stronghold of Lutheranism, and Ratisbon, for colloquies with Protestants. There Faber saw what he called “the ruins of the Catholic Church.” Surely he thought the Protestants with whom he had contact were in error, as well as the Catholics he met who were contemplating becoming Protestants. Yet his temperament favored gentleness, persuasion and conciliation. While Dr. Pedro Ortiz, the papal legate at the Colloquy of Worms in 1540, was easily roused to fury at Catholic and Protestant alike, the tireless Catholic theologian Cochlaeus described Faber as “a master of the life of the affections.” Faber’s preaching dealt not with theological controversy but with personal reform.
Spain came next, in 1541, with a trip that took him through parts of Switzerland, Savoy and France. In such cities as Barcelona, Zaragoza, Medinaceli, Madrid and Toledo, Faber fashioned a wide network of friends, directees in the spiritual life, recruits and benefactors for the new Society of Jesus.
In January 1542 the pope summoned Faber back to Germany. At Cologne, Antwerp, Louvain and elsewhere it was the same story. His friends ranged from Albert of Brandenburg, the Prince Bishop of Mainz, who had at the least indirectly precipitated the Reformation by starting the preaching of the indulgences against which Luther so vehemently spoke, to Peter Canisius, who soon after entered the Society and in the following decades became “the second apostle of Germany.” In all these places Faber also worked with university students, enlisted enthusiastic participants in his pastoral work and gathered new candidates for the Society of Jesus.
The year 1544 saw Faber sent to Portugal, with similar results, especially in Evora and Coimbra. He was “endowed with charming grace in dealing with people, which up to now I must confess I have not seen in anyone else,” writes Simon Rodrigues, another of the first companions/founders of the Society of Jesus and founder of its Portuguese province. “Somehow he entered into friendship in such a way, bit by bit coming to influence others in such a manner, that his very way of living and gracious conversation powerfully drew to the love of God all those with whom he dealt.”
Though he was in ill health and frequently laid low in March 1545 for weeks at a time, Faber returned to Spain—to Valladolid, Salamanca, Toledo, Galapagar, Alcalá and Madrid—to preach, give the Spiritual Exercises, counsel rich and poor and found new Jesuit communities. Summoned once again by the pope, this time to serve as theologian at the Council of Trent, he began his last journey in April 1546, working his way from Madrid to Rome by way of Gandía and Barcelona. He arrived utterly exhausted in the middle of July 1546. Two weeks later, on Aug. 1, he died in the midst of his brethren. As one of them said, he was “summoned by God to the council of heaven instead of the Council of Trent.” Over his lifetime he had traveled, mostly by foot, more than 7,000 miles “as the crow flies” and, given the winding roads of the time, probably twice that many miles in reality.
Faber’s spiritual journey
Faber’s inner journey is best recorded in his Memoriale. Written on the run, day by day in the midst of his apostolic labors, he completed most of it in the course of the year from June 1542 to July 1543. The rest he wrote in 1545, with a last brief entry in January 1546.
A spiritual autobiography is a record of God’s dealings with a person and of that person’s return of thanks, whether in word or deed, for gifts received. Faber saw God as both initiating those gifts and at their center. The first words of the Memoriale are from the Psalms: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” God speaks, acts and guides. Faber responds by remembering God’s deeds and speaking with God about them.
The structure of the Memoriale is that of a dialogue, with God and Faber as primary partners and occasionally other participants, such as the saints, the angels, his brethren, “good spirits” and the inhabitants and “spirits” of the cities he passes through. God starts the process: “There came to me....”; “It was given to me.” Faber carries on his side of the conversation in longings, spiritual motions, scrutiny of those motions, discernment of their meaning and requests for light, using the traditional language of the church. “So I asked Christ,” he writes in 1543, “to make use of me and what I possessed in any way that might seem good to him from that moment on for his glory, for the welfare of others, for the salvation of my soul.” His writing often concerns itself with ways of praying, especially drawing on the Spiritual Exercises. (Ignatius said that in his judgment Faber was the single best director of the Exercises.) But he also draws on popular devotions, litanies, the Liturgy of the Hours and his devotion to the Mass.
In the last words of the Memoriale, Faber speaks of his continued need for grace against “temptations of various fears, needs and deficiencies.”
A sense of measure and proportion
The person who emerges has characteristics conditioned, of course, by the circumstances of the 16th century in which he lived. Yet some of his attributes might well be appropriate for men and women of the 21st century as well. Faber was someone who moved from one responsibility to another, year after year, as is often the case for people today. But he did so with a conviction that wherever he was, he was in God’s presence and surrounded by a community of friends on earth. He also could not help but experience the often wrenching changes in the church and society around him, such as exist today, and he was often assailed by discouragement and doubt. Ultimately, though, he saw the world and the church around him with a sense of measure and proportion. He was a person of great sensitivity to his own interior state, but he was equally sensitive to both the physical and psychological circumstances of those with whom he came into contact. Finally, he had an intense desire for an ever-deepening relationship with God and knew that while such a relationship depended on God’s grace, this grace was mediated through the companionship of others who equally sought such a relationship.
In the last words of the Memoriale, Faber speaks of his continued need for grace against “temptations of various fears, needs and deficiencies.” Still, the dialogue had grown simpler, the desires less numerous and less classified, the desire for immediate union with God above all others and ever stronger.
When pilgrims visit the church of the Gesù in Rome to venerate the relics of Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, they stand before two magnificent shrine altars. Though they may not know it, they are also in the presence of Peter Faber. His bones, indistinguishable from those of many of his Jesuit brethren, lie buried in the crypt at the threshold of the church. Entering the church on journeys from places hundreds or thousands of miles away, pilgrims walk over the final resting place of a missionary, a mystic, a Jesuit—a saint still too little known.
Six months after he wrote this final entry in his journal, now known as the Memoriale, Peter Faber died. At the time of his writing, on Jan. 20, 1546, Faber was in Madrid, Spain, after spending time in Toledo giving the Spiritual Exercises. Characteristically, his last journal entry was not simply about his own spiritual life, but also about helping others in theirs.
On the day of Sts. Fabian and Sebastian, when I was with a man in need of consolation, the only thing I could think of for the delight of his soul was this. All the spiritual trials of all men have their eye on, so to speak, and result from, an excessive fear of coming eventually to a condition like Christ’s, or his Mother’s, or the good thief’s, or the disciple’s. And what troubles them most is the fear of coming to the fate of Christ on the cross.
In such trials, of course, spiritual and temporal, he needed to bear in mind this distinction: Some fear for themselves lest they fall deservedly under the good thief’s sentence; others fear for themselves lest they come, without deserving it, to a condition like Christ’s; others fear that fate not for themselves but for their loved ones, and that is to fear the state of the most Blessed Virgin Mother of God; still others fear for those who love them, and that is to fear the state of Christ’s beloved disciple, who stood with the Mother before the cross of him who loved him.
Let these four persons, then, be brought before one’s eyes: Christ hanging on the cross, the good thief fastened to the cross, the Blessed Virgin standing near the cross, and St. John the Evangelist.
On that day I celebrated the Mass of the feast, offering the sacrifice for this, that these holy martyrs may have at heart the trials and adversities of our whole Society.
During the first days of this new year, I have experienced a revival of my defects so that I am beginning to get to know them in a new way towards a new amendment. I have felt especially that I need a new way of recollection of soul and that for this there is need for me to behave differently in external things so as to become more recollected and unified if I want to find and retain the Spirit of the Lord who sanctifies, corrects, and strengthens. Especially was I now seeing my need of more silence and more solitude. I have also felt, during these days, through my experience of temptations my need of much grace to protect me against feelings of poverty and against the temptations of various fears, needs, and deficiencies.
From The Spiritual Writings of Pierre Favre, published by the Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of occasional articles for the jubilee year of the Society of Jesus, commemorating anniversaries in the lives of St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier and Blesses Peter Faber.